Growth Shouldn’t Just Be for Customers
Let’s not get carried away with customer growth. You wouldn’t have those customers if not for your employees.
Brian Balfour recently wrote about seeking authentic growth, and something that struck me was how absolutely similar (wait… no, the same) his framework is to the framework for a successful employee lifecycle (shorthand for all the stuff that happens to and for an employee between the signed offer letter and the last day). The funny thing is, we don’t really measure it that well. You probably take great pains to measure customer growth, but what about employee growth?
Balfour posits that authentic growth is trifold: meaningful, sustainable, and repeatable. For him, to be meaningful, growth must be useful for the customer and the company. Likewise, sustainable refers to your ability to keep and nurture customers. Finally, repeatable means focusing your energy on initiatives that will consistently deliver value, rather than one-off hits that take an insane amount of energy to execute on.
Meaningful Growth for Employees
If having an company that’s growing authentically means you’re seeking meaningful, sustainable, and repeatable initiatives for growing your customer base, then it also means you’re seeking the exact same thing for your employees.
In startup land, where everything needed to happen yesterday and there is never enough time, employees sometimes get left out of the equation. We start to see them as fungible resources instead of human beings who can add immeasurable value to our businesses. So, what happens is we grow and suddenly find ourselves with 20, 50, 100, employees. And then, when there is a moment to breathe, we step back and realize there might have been a bit of carnage. But how? Customers are happy. Revenue is up. Why are there such bad reviews on Glassdoor? When we want to understand something, the first impulse for many of us is to try and measure it. It’s common to measure things like:
- Number of applicants (overall, but also from various groups)
- Number of interviews and screens
- Number of internal promotions
- Functional (meaning you’re glad the employee left) and nonfunctional (the opposite) turnover rates
- Number of employee referrals for open roles
I’m not saying these aren’t valid and valuable; they are. Instead of starting with the metric, start with experience. See if your growth is as meaningful for your employees as it is for your customers:
- Have we — and how have we — shared our mission with our team?
- How invested are our employees in our mission?
- Is the work our employees are doing meaningful?
- How do we know it’s meaningful?
It’s hard to measure sustainability in the employee lifecycle without defaulting to retention and turnover. Sometimes, employees that are perfect for the high intensity growth years aren’t right for more stable, measured years, and people that have the perfect skill set for the problem you’re facing aren’t able to cope with the volatility of the startup environment. However, consider the following:
- If you have team members leaving whom you’ll miss, you have a problem. It’s now your job to figure out what part of your culture, or which person or team, might be toxic. This is the number-one killer of great employees, and their ability to sustain great work.
- If you have team members who aren’t passing muster between three and nine months, one of two things happened: you hired wrong (read: the interview process can be improved), or there are internal barriers that are preventing those team members from succeeding (read: no training, no buddy, toxic people or culture, failure to share the big vision)
Finally, repeatability. Repeatability, in this context, means process. So many startups refuse to institute processes that will help them reach and repeat successes across the business. Often, this is because we fear having to abide by some manual someone else wrote. If you want to see growth for your employees, and believe that happy, healthy employees beget happy, paying customers, then you’ll trust me that process will help you get there.
- Start with a lightweight hiring process. Take a couple of hours with your team to map out the journey of a candidate to an onboarded employee (whatever onboarding means right now). Identify where confusion or malaise happens, and change one variable at a time. This might mean having people take more structured interview notes or creating a checklist for hiring.
- Next, try out an MVP onboarding program.
- Then, look at your culture. Identify the assets you have (e.g., money for conferences, regular hack days, 20% time, internal tech talks) and develop your language around them.
Don’t Stop Here
Focusing on growth for growth’s sake is so passé — and focusing on authentic growth just for customers should be, too. If you’re interested in reaching meaningful, sustainable, and repeatable growth for your business, don’t forget about your employees. They’re the ones that make it happen.